"Four generations of families where no-one has ever had a job"? Probably not, Mr Grayling

A new report highlights the rareness of intergenerational worklessness, as well as its undesirability.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has a new report out putting to bed the myth of "cultures of worklessness".

It's a powerful narrative, frequently voiced by members of the public, and occasionally – shamefully – repeated by government ministers who ought to know better:

We have got places where there are three generations of men who have never worked. If your grandfather never worked and your father never worked, why would you think work is the normal thing to do?

– Dame Carol Black, 2008

For too long, in too many deprived areas of the country, there has been a destructive culture that ‘no-one around here works’.

– Gordon Brown, 2003

... there are four generations of families where no-one has ever had a job. – Chris Grayling, Minister for Work and Pensions, BBC ‘Newsnight’, 15 February 2011

The most extreme version of the claim - that there were four generations who have never worked (in other words, the version spread by the Minister for Work and Pensions) –  seems to be entirely unsupportable. The JRF write:

Despite dogged searching in localities with high rates of worklessness across decades we were unable to locate any families in which there were three generations in which no-one had ever worked. [Emphasis theirs]

That's right – they can't even find three generations, let alone four. "Three generations of worklessness" is, by the way, a claim made by Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling's boss. Also unsupportable.

The foundation was assured, at least, that there were families with two generations of worklessness, and even made an infographic detailing the evidence that they exist – even if they do make up just 0.09 per cent of the working population:

Unfortunately, even finding any of those families was tricky. In the end, the report had to settle for interviewing families with one generation in long-term unemployment, and a second which had never worked. With these, vastly reduced, criteria, they managed to find twenty families to interview about why they were in that situation. And what they found is that across the generations, people stressed the social, psychological and financial value of working for a living:

“It gives your whole day some sort of order. It’s like a regimental thing ... whereas if you are just sat around it can be frustrating and awful, really.”

Patrick Richards, 49, Middlesbrough

“I’ve always wanted to be able to say to somebody, ‘I work here’, ‘I’m going to my work’.”

Pamela Fraser, 21, Glasgow

“Of course it would be important to me [to have a job], especially when I’m only on £95 a fortnight. God, to have a wage that would be £95 a week; I would feel like a millionaire!”

Verity Lamb, 16, Middlesbrough

The research thus argues that, in so far as there is intergenerational worklessness, it is not due to a "culture" or "inherited attitude", but rather due to the calcification of long-term unemployment, and the existence of employment black holes.

It concludes:

that politicians and policy-makers need to abandon theories – and policies flowing from them – that see worklessness as primarily the outcome of a culture of worklessness, held in families and passed down the generations. If these cultures cannot be found in the extreme cases studied here, they are unlikely to explain more general patterns of worklessness in the UK.

We doubt the cabinet are listening.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.